Some spring days have a special kind of magic, don’t they? Especially in May when the trees dance with small tender leaves, the air is cool, the sun is warm – and the birds of summer arrive in all their mating finery. Wednesday, May 17 was one of those days. (Birding friends, Aaron Carroll and Joan and Bob Bonin shared their photos with me for this blog. Thanks to them all!)
Our Oakland Township Wednesday Birding Group gathered in the parking lot, but Aaron Carroll had arrived early and walked the trails through the eastern fields. In the hedgerow between them, he’d spotted a pair of male Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) jousting among the greenery. (Gender ID is easy with this species. Males have black “mustaches.” Females don’t.) In the first photo below, one bird has its beak straight up in the air, the very pose that author Donald Stokes (Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. 1) describes for both male and female flickers when skirmishing over territory or potential mates in spring. Stokes adds that this position is usually followed by a chase, which seems to be what’s happening in Aaron’s second photo. Good job of catching the action, Aaron!
Once the whole group arrived, we took the northern path from the parking lot, crossed through an opening in the hedgerow and cut through the pathless forest full of dappled light. We emerged at the top of a large meadow and waded through soft grass where it sloped down toward a large marsh. At its edge, we could see and hear multiple Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) whisking about singly and in pairs at the edge near the water. The males serenaded their lady friends and fended off the competition with songs they’d learned from nearby adult males when they were mere fledglings. I couldn’t record their songs while in the birding group, but here’s a Song Sparrow I saw and recorded at Watershed Ridge in 2018, just to refresh your memory. (Click red arrow for sound.)
Two small gray birds flitted about within the branches of a gnarly old tree at the edge of the marsh. Binoculars raised, we identified them as Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Then suddenly we recognized their elegant, cup-shaped nest nearby. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, it’s built in flexible layers of bark strips, stems and grasses outside and softer materials inside like downy plant fibers and feathers, then decorated with lichen. And imagine this! These little birds use spider or caterpillar silk to hold it on the branch and bind it all together, which, some sources say, allows for some flexibility as the baby birds grow. Clever little artist/engineers, these tiny birds. I love Aaron Carroll’s sequence of photos below. He saw both adults taking turns on the nest, which Cornell reports as a gnatcatcher trait! Nice cooperation!
We used a handy rock for crossing a small stream beyond the marsh to explore the field and pond beyond. I enjoy cresting the small slope beyond the stream to see the small wetland below because it often hosts water birds. And sure enough, three different migrators had dropped in for a visit. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) flew up from the shore, while down below, a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scuttled about the muddy edges and a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) foraged beneath the surface with its long beak.
A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chattered in the thicket at the edge of the meadow. It never made an appearance for fellow birders, Ralph and Andrea Wampler and I. But if you’d like to hear a bit of Catbird conversation, here’s one from Bear Creek a few years ago.
The Big Finish!
From the meadow, we crossed back over the creek and headed up into the trees. Suddenly the people at the front of the group turned to the rest of us, gesturing with their index fingers to their lips and whispering, “ssshhh…!” We gathered quietly. About four feet off the trail, a very focused female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drilled furiously at a short stump. We all froze. We couldn’t quite believe our luck at being so close to such an impressive bird. As you’ll see in Aaron Carroll’s video below, she was making the wood chips fly as she drilled for insects in the rotting bark. And she went on drilling for several minutes, apparently oblivious to the presence of the birding group! All of us stood in amazement.
Finally the Pileated raised her bright red crest and flew farther into the trees. Perhaps she was annoyed at not finding the insects she sought or maybe she suddenly realized she was being watched by a group of rapt birders! We all stood there for a few seconds in disbelief after she departed and then we started exclaiming. “Amazing!” “Boy, I’m glad I was here!” “What a sight that was!” “Well that may be my most incredible bird sighting ever…” We felt a bit dazed but very pleased with the morning’s events as we started up the trail again. But it turned out that nature had one more treat in store for us.
The up-and-down ripple of paired notes of the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) reached us from the canopy. Ben led the way and there he was – the male Bunting which Cornell ornithologists describe so beautifully as looking “like a scrap of sky with wings.” This male’s dark wings may have carried him from the Caribbean, Central America or as far away as the northwestern tip of South America. We can hope that he’s arrived to nest and breed at Watershed Ridge Park. We’d be honored to host him.
Lest You Believe That’s All We Saw….!
The birds above are just a few of the 35 species we saw and/or heard that spring morning. They’re the ones that posed nicely for my photographer friends! So here are a few of the other migrators we saw or heard that morning in photos my friends and I have taken on other days. And this slideshow doesn’t even include the “regulars,” like the cardinals, various woodpeckers, the tufted titmice and such that we see on almost every walk but which delight us with their presence too!
You Don’t Have to Be a “Birder” to Enjoy Our Birding Walks
I’m NOT your classic “birder.” I don’t keep a “life list” of birds that I’ve seen. I recognize maybe 10 bird songs from memory. I only travel relatively short distances to go to occasional bird festivals or “hotspots.” We keep feeders in our yard and dedicate a bookshelf to bird identification/ behavior books. I’ve monitored bird boxes and have Cornell Ornithology’s Merlin app on my cell phone to help me identify birds and their calls. So I guess that makes me a bird enthusiast rather than a serious “birder.”
And I just love the Wednesday Bird Walks. This congenial collection of bird fanciers has become a community for me. Our group is a mixture of men and women from late teens to late seventies with a variety of gifts to share. Younger ones bring their energy, enthusiasm, good ears, and sharp eyes, as well as info and insights they’ve gleaned recently in academic settings. Some of us older ones bring years of accumulated bird knowledge and experience. Some can accurately describe almost any plumage pattern or carry a symphony of bird songs in their heads.
We walk at a relaxed pace. Once someone spots a bird, we gather, craning our necks, peering upward through our binoculars, trying to find the bird’s location. “See those two bushes with white flowers? Look about 30 feet up at 3:00,” (which means about halfway up the tree on the right side. ) “It’s at the tip of that bare limb…Oops, it just went down in the grass – but wait. Bluebirds often come right back up.” “I’m hearing a Brown Thrasher but I can’t see it yet.” And so on.
Like me, most bird walkers just enjoy the company of birders as much as we enjoy birds. We share personal stories, laugh, commiserate, chat along the way. We’re silent when we need to be. We mute our phones and look at them only for info or the occasional bird call. We come because we like the people and we love seeing birds, hearing their songs and hanging out together for a couple of hours surrounded by nature. And our stewardship staff reports our weekly discoveries to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science website, eBird.org. That also allows our stewardship staff to keep a record of bird species in our parks each week over many years.
You’re welcome to join us if any of that sounds appealing. Just bring your curiosity and good will. Wear comfy clothes, sturdy shoes and bring binoculars, or our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide will happily loan you a pair on the spot. The summer schedule is listed here . If you’re interested but unable to hike with us for any reason, I’m glad you’re joining us here at Natural Areas Notebook!
After all, on some delightful spring morning, YOU might get lucky and find yourself up close and personal with a glorious drama queen like the one below!
The Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park was a hub of avian activity during early fall. After a very dry summer, the water level fell significantly, exposing the muddy bottom in some areas and bringing underwater prey closer to the surface. And the birds came! Summer visitors who raised young here and birds migrating south clearly saw the remaining open water and muddy edges as an oasis. After the vernal pools dried up and even Bear Creek marsh filled with plants in the dry summer heat, the Center Pond provided an ideal place to find food!
I, sadly, wasn’t able to use my long lens much for birds in the last few weeks after a minor fiasco with my back – but never fear!
Two of my brilliant photographer friends, Bob Bonin and Paul Birtwhistle, generously filled my inbox with glorious shots of all kinds of birds they saw there! Through their eyes, you and I can witness what Bear Creek had to offer our avian friends in early fall. And I’ll add in a few extras from my October trips through Bear Creek’s fields and its oak-hickory forest. So let’s head out together on another virtual hike, this time with two other nature-loving photographers.
Off Toward the Slopes of the Western Meadow
The gardens near the parking lot on Snell Road are shedding their seed now. They currently look a bit chaotic, but all those seed heads will be a nourishing boon to birds this winter. But one hardy species, Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), contributed its bright yellow rays to the fall colors until mid-October. What a heartening native addition to a late-summer/fall garden!
Paul Birtwhistle and I both stopped by the Playground Pond this fall. In September, Paul came across a female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) banging away on one of the many snags (standing dead trees) in the pond. (Females have a black “mustache”; males have a red one.) At this time of year, she was probably seeking out wood-boring beetle larvae, though in general, carpenter ants are her preference.
When I arrived at the Playground Pond in October with the Wednesday morning birding group, a gang of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were socializing in a dead tree. The juveniles are much less colorful than their parents – mostly gray instead of cedar brown and lemon yellow – but even at a distance, we could see the bright yellow tips on their tails and their developing black masks. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
In September, Paul ventured further west to the steeply sloping path of the western meadow where tiny migrators foraged at the edge of the woods. And what a group of golden beauties! The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) nests in conifers at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten,” the Upper Peninsula or in Canada. This female or immature male with its complete white eye ring, vivid yellow breast and gray head stopped by Bear Creek to rest and feed on its way to bask in Caribbean sun for the winter.
Another migrator, the Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), also breeds in “up north” Michigan and in Canada. It drops by in fall and spring when it’s migrating to and from its wintering grounds in Mexico. That’s quite a trip twice a year! Paul caught it pausing as it too sought out Bear Creek’s rich supply of insects for its long journey.
The other little bird Paul glimpsed in the west of the park was an immature male Common Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas). (Adult males have a white-banded black mask, and in immature males this mask is very faint; females have a warm brown head, yellow undersides, and olive back.) This young male might have hatched from an egg right at Bear Creek Nature Park since Paul and I repeatedly saw Yellowthroats or heard their “witchedy, witchedy” call near the marsh this summer. Or perhaps this one arrived from further north. In either case, he too stocked up on insects here before winging off to the southeast toward Florida or the Caribbean.
Strolling Along the Walnut Lane
The Walnut Lane which runs between two meadows serves as a favorite perusing perch for birds. When Paul arrived there on October 1, he spotted migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) gazing out among the golden leaves along the trail. After raising young in the Upper Peninsula or even Canada’s boreal forests, these striking birds stop by each fall on their way to Florida or the Caribbean to partake of our parks’ bounty.
The same day, down near north end of the Lane, Paul spotted a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis). We have two species of non-native Mantises in Michigan. This larger one, at 3-5 inches, is a highly successful predator also on the hunt for insects. Its orange back with green edges is distinctive, though sometimes Chinese Mantises are solid green like the smaller species, the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), which is no more than 3 inches long. These two may have out-competed the only native mantis in our country, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) which now exists only in the southeast. This one clearly focused on Paul. Maybe she was flirting?
In the late summer and fall, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) frequently perch on the Walnut Lane. I saw a pensive female there on October 2. On October 5, Paul and I both saw a pair exploring the possibilities of a snag for insects now or perhaps next year’s cavity nest. In fact, the Lane area was full of their fluttering that day! The nesting boxes placed by the stewardship crew and tended by volunteers have added a lot of bluebirds to Bear Creek – and other parks with boxes – so keep an eye out for them!
A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) also flitted about within the branches along the Lane. Paul caught this tiny bird between dashes from limb to limb (left below), while I just caught the blur of another one’s flight during the bird walk.
The Center Pond Feeding the Multitudes – and a Rare Visitor
Both of my photographer friends hung out at the Center Pond, a hub of activity in the fall at Bear Creek Nature Park. On each of his visits, Paul Birtwhistle snapped his photos quickly to catch in action two large, very successful foragers. In early September, he came upon a very excited Green Heron (Butorides virescens) with a crest that literally stood on end like a “punk” hairstyle. Maybe just the thought of all those “easy pickings” in the shallow water had a huge effect on this skillful fisher! Here’s a brief slideshow of Paul’s shots of its hunting techniques.
Paul watched a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) feed day after day at the Center Pond. The first time, on October 9, he witnessed one snagging two different prey. Its first prize was a little Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)! Some flying bird must have dropped Bass eggs into the pond earlier in the summer since this pond is spring-fed. Each prey caught, Paul reports, was dipped in the water and then shaken vigorously. Cornell University’s website explains that this process may quickly break the spine before the heron swallows it whole. Gulp!
Its second catch was a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans). The heron came back the next day for another frog. In fact, Paul’s seen a heron fishing repeatedly for two weeks! Evidently, the shallower water after the summer drought made fishing much more profitable for the water birds this year! The pond may have fewer frogs next summer but we’re sending well-fed herons south during the migration. Here’s a small sampling of Paul’s amazing photos of this impressive bird, with its 6 to 7 foot wingspan and its skillful fishing.
The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have also been bottoms-up feeding at the Center Pond during October. Paul got a wonderful shot of a pair surveying the pond from the edge. They’re probably here for a variety of aquatic plants, including the bright green Duckweed (aptly named!) (Lemna minor) and Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) that they scoop up with their bills when they’re cruising along.
Male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) molt into eclipse plumage in later summer/early fall that makes them look more like the females. Later in the fall, they molt again into their breeding colors in order to attract a mate for the next season. I think this male, with its head bejeweled with water droplets, has excellent mating prospects! What a glamor shot! Thanks, Paul!
Of course, not all the foraging was going on in the water at the Center Pond. An unusual migrator appeared at the Wednesday bird walk. A Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) settled down on the muddy shoals exposed by the drought and spent several hours flipping over leaves to see what insects, seeds or fallen fruit might be hiding there. My other patient photographer buddy, Bob Bonin, stayed at the pond for hours and caught his beautiful shot (below left). Rusty Blackbirds only pass through during fall and spring migration and their numbers are rapidly declining. I last saw them in 2015 when a small flock in their breeding colors (below right) landed in a wetland near the Center Pond. Researchers think their decline is caused by the usual suspects – agriculture, logging, development, soil contamination. So I’m glad our parks provided a rich source of sustenance for even this single Rusty in its fall plumage.
Bob’s patience paid off again. In those extra hours, he also tracked the quick, short flights of a variety of small migrating birds foraging at the Center Pond. Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) eat a wide variety of foods during migration – insects when they can find them, seeds, berries of all kinds, including poison ivy berries! The field mark to look for, winter or spring, is the bright yellow patch between the wings on the top of its rump, though their plumage is much more dramatic in the spring, like most birds.
White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) can be seen under my feeder during the fall and winter – maybe yours too? These hardy sparrows flooded into Bear Creek Nature Park early in October after breeding farther north. Their striped heads can sometimes be confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, but the White Throats have that nifty white patch under the beak and bright yellow spots (called “lores”) just above their eyes. Check out the pattern differences when you see a “little brown bird” pecking in the grass! It’s not “just a sparrow!” Try thinking “Which sparrow is it?” Thanks to Bob for this great identification shot!
Down on the dock, the birding group saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) doing what flycatchers do best – quickly sallying out over water to snitch insects from the air. These grayish-brown songbirds sing a steeply descending “Pheeee-buzz” song in the summer and are easily identified by an almost continuous pumping or twitching of their tails when perched.
A Short Walk Through Alice’s Woods, aka the Oak-Hickory Forest
Let’s wind up our virtual hike with a quick walk through the oak-hickory forest, which is now named “Alice’s Woods,” in honor of the incredible Alice Tomboulian who inspired, helped found and served Oakland Township Parks for so many years. Alice was an intrepid lover of the natural world who understood the importance of both preservation and the urgent requirements of restoring that land with native species. She was an inspiration to so many, including me, and is greatly missed.
The quiet of a forest always soothes me, and that’s especially true in autumn light. Fewer birds, other than woodpeckers, regularly appear for me in the woods. I come across Titmice, a summer Wood-Pewee, once a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the occasional migrating warbler, the Brown Creeper and two or three times a Great Horned Owl, among others. But this October, I felt surrounded only by what I call “leaf talk.” The spinning descent of dry leaves accompanied the tree shadows slipping across my husband’s shoulders in the dappled light. In the woods, we tried to notice the small forest details that tend to show themselves when we aren’t peering up into the canopy for birds.
First, we came across an array of fallen logs, each one heavily filigreed with Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). These polypore mushrooms help break down dead wood into sugars and carbon dioxide by loosening the bonds of lignin that made the wood and bark rigid. In other words, these fungi are gradual wood recyclers – and they’re beautiful while doing it!
The concentric geometry of a web spun by an Orb-weaver Spider (genus Araneus) caught our eye in a spot of fall sunlight. The spider may have expired on a chilly night, but she left behind evidence of her skill. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, the mating process in this genus can be a bit fraught. “Males …usually need to perform some kind of species-specific signal (usually by plucking the web in a specific pattern) as they approach the female to let them know they are not prey and wish to mate. If the female is overly hungry or not ready to mate, she might turn on the male and eat him if he gets too close. If she is ready to mate, she probably will leave him alone during the act, after which the male beats a hasty retreat.” Don’t mess with an unwilling female Orb-weaver!
Emerging from the woods to head back to the car, we were greeted by the charmingly bug-eyed Spotted Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes congener). This little creature survives longer than most other damselflies, into October and even November. Its eggs overwinter and can tolerate temperatures as low as -17 degrees, according to my cherished guide, Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan by Robert Dubois and Mike Reese. So glad this hardy little insect posed for me.
Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) accompanied us along every path, springing away under our feet. In our colder latitudes, these grasshoppers are smaller and have to mature more quickly since this species only reproduces once in a season. Females will lay eggs in the soil to overwinter. The nymphs will dig their way out next spring and molt 5-7 times before being ready to mate.
I hope you’ve noticed the sweet, buzzing song of crickets – and probably some katydids and grasshoppers too – this time of year. My sharp-eyed husband spotted one of the tiny Ground Crickets (family Trigonidiidae) whose males sing so wonderfully this time of year just by pulling the scraper-like edge of one forewing against the other. Dr. Parsons would have needed to have this tiny (maybe 3/4 inch?) creature in hand to identify it among the seven species in three genera in Michigan. He did tell me that they can survive quite cold temperatures down in the grass as long as they don’t freeze. So when the weather warms back up in the fall, the males “sing” again, hoping to mate before winter sets in.
Ensuring Autumn’s Richness Continues to Feed the Future
I like to think of autumn as a time of rich harvest in our parks. Yes, it’s true that the leaves are falling and flowers and grasses are withering – but that means seeds can feed hungry migrators before they fly further south on a north wind under the stars. Those dry seed heads in our parks, or left for the winter (we hope) in your drying garden, can nourish our avian neighbors who tough out the winter with us. Insects have left behind chrysalises, cocoons, and galls, where their young will gradually transform next spring into dancing butterflies, fluttering moths in a summer night, and the millions of caterpillars and adult insects needed to feed next summer’s frogs, flycatchers, soaring swallows and thousands of baby birds. It means seeds and nuts will rest on or in the cooling earth, ready to crack open and thrust out new life when the soil warms again. While we humans sip our sweet cider and bite into crisp apples, nature is serving up food for the multitudes and sowing new life in its endless cycle of abundance.
If we continue to preserve natural areas and restore them to the health that nature designed through millennia, we can hope that endless fruitful autumns stretch ahead on our planet home. Here in Oakland Township, we’re doing our best to do just that in our parks. It isn’t enough to simply preserve open land, as crucial as that is. Through the yearly cycles of restoration work performed by our stewardship crew and volunteers under Dr. VanderWeide’s expert guidance, we are continuously caring for the land. We are slowly restoring as much of its historic diversity, richness and beauty as we possibly can after years of human use or neglect. And that transformation, that commitment to nurturing the land, sustains my commitment to the future, to a healthier world for the young, even when the nights grow longer and bare trees sketch black tracery against the autumn sky. I hope it does that for you, too.
Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteers gathering native seed to enrich other township parks.
I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.
This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!
Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April
It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.
During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!
This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.
On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!
A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.
On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.
Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April
Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.
The Avian Summer Residents
My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.
Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!
Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.
In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.
On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.
Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.
Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)
All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through
The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.
Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods
As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.
In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.
Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.
And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.
Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!
In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.
As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park
While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds – and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.
So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.
Some photos and all text by Cam Mannino
A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.
[A note: Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]
Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!
One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.
It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!
American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.
The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving, which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.
American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!
American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)
Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.
Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .
It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.
The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)
Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations. Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)
A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)
Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!
The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)
One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!
American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org
Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!
Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)
Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?
The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)
After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs. It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.
A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.
And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.
Killdeers may be happy to nest inside the protection of the conservation fence near the water.
Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting
Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.
A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)
I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.
“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.
Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!
The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)
The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park. Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.
Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission
Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.
The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)
The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.
A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.
One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!
A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement
Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.
Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)
My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Look for the pinkish beak and legs to identify a Field Sparrow.
The male Song Sparrow throws back his head back and sings!
Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance – and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!
With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…
Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park
I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers, journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.
And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.
Photos and text by Cam Mannino
So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.
FEBRUARY: Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!
Winter sparkling down the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park in February
Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.
Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day
It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.
An American Red Squirrel with a nut almost too big for its jaws!
On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.
A cold, perhaps hungry Red-tailed Hawk didn’t look too happy on a cold morning near Cranberry Lake.
AmericanTree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A tree sparrow stayed near the ground, under weeds, as an icy wind ruffled its crown.
On a warmer day, a Tree Sparrow perching on Common Mullein.
Part of a flock of Tree Sparrows here for the winter in Ilsley Park
Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker(Dryocopuspileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!
A distant view of an elusive Pileated Woodpecker in a snag at Charles Ilsley Park
White underwing feathers make Pileated Woodpeckers easier to ID when flying.Photo by dpdawes (CC BY-NC)
Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.
A foraging Red-bellied Woodpecker stops foraging long enough to be sure another male isn’t in his territory!
At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.
The white feathers on this crow make me think it could be an old one. Crows can live as long as 19 years.
And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly (family Sciomyzidae, possible genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!
A tiny Snail-eating Fly poised at the edge of a boot print at Charles Ilsley Park. It most likely mistook a warmish winter afternoon for a spring day .
Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence
Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.
A Gray Squirrel I saw back in 2015.
The track of a Gray Squirrel as it leapt onto a tree trunk.
The incrediby slim hole of a Gray Squirrel
A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose(Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months! And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver(Castor canadensis).
Swamp Rose Hips looking beautifully red on a cold morning
Evidence of recent Beaver activity!
I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.
Cranberry Lake under a flawless blanket of snow
The beaver’s enlarged den with a log recently inserted
Bark provides a beaver with food inside the den on a winter day.
Pondering Snow Prints
Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpesvulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)
The birders guessed that these small, orderly tracks were those of a fox.
Coyote tracks always form a neat line as they place the back foot in the print of the front foot to save energy.
Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow. I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.
The tracks of a hesitant mouse stitch their way back and forth across the trail.
Could this be the tracks of a foraging Meadow Vole?
Squirrel print – perhaps a red squirrel from its tiny size
And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?
What could have made these polka-dots in the snow cover? I’m mystified.
Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers
One of my goals is to be as familiar with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.
MARCH: The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell – but Can It Last?
Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)
First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!
A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!
A Northern Cardinal singing his spring song at Charles Ilsley Park
We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.
A Chickadee in Red-Twig Osier.
The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.
A female Eastern Bluebird checking out a nest box at Charles Ilsley Park.
Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.
A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.
Sandhills Cranes returned in early March, soaring far overhead at Ilsley Park.
The male Red-wings arrive in groups. This one chose a thistle stalk on which to sing his song.
The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!
At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed. We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?
A little ice cave formed on the eastern edge of a wetland in the prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.
I could envision that a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!
The ice cave looked as though it could shelter a small creature at night.
Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.
A melting wetland feeds a stream running through the woods on the northern side of Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie.
And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.
A spear of moss near at wetland at Ilsley.
The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples(Acersaccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s kitchen window.
Silver Maples red buds against a clear blue sky in March
Pussy Willow blooming on a cold March morning at Cranberry Lake Park
The Best Kind of “Social Distance”
The Northern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in early March
As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me – as my camera can attest!
So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)
Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle. Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night. Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild for ourselves and our children.